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Pat LaMarche

Pat LaMarche

Posted: January 26, 2011 02:47 PM

Monday, I drove by a northwestern Georgia church sign declaring this, "No Name Calling Week." Finally, bullying is going to take some time off. And not a moment too soon! I was on my way to Gordon County to meet with religious and community leaders who were thinking about opening a homeless shelter and finger pointing never helps.

Just the day before, I had flown to Atlanta. Diane Nilan, founder of HEAR US, a national nonprofit agency dedicated to highlighting and mitigating the plight of homeless children in the U.S. was there to greet me. Back home in south central Pennsylvania, I'm Vice President of Safe Harbour, Cumberland County's largest homeless shelter, where we provide emergency, transitional and permanent housing to economically disadvantaged folks.

Diane and I both write about homeless issues as part of our educational outreach and consequently ran into each other last year. My book, "Left Out in America" details a trip I took across the nation staying in homeless shelters and living on the streets.

Diane's book, "Crossing the Line," describes her personal journey as a suburban Illinois homeless shelter director and her ongoing desire to help the most vulnerable homeless population: children.

Because of our similar concerns and methods, Diane and I decided to combine our energies and set out on what we call our "EPIC journey." We're hoping to showcase America's homeless, one story at a time. EPIC is an acronym for "Every Day People in Crisis," and we chose it because even though hundreds of thousands of folks are without shelter every night, each has a unique story. The sooner we put a real face on the poor, the sooner we will understand the crisis afflicting our nation.

It would be wrong to stay in hotels or even at somebody's home -- so on this trip we're camping on the side of the road or in the woods. We spent our first night at Stone Mountain camp ground and the next day we headed to Calhoun, Georgia.

Calhoun has less than 15,000 residents and 150 of them don't have a home. That's only one percent, but when that figure is extrapolated out and applied to the rest of the country, our nation's homeless numbers come in at around 3.5 million. Worse yet, we touched base with the Gordon County homeless liaison before we went and he told us that ten percent of the school children of Gordon county are homeless. But that's not so surprising when you read our nations employment statistics. According to the bipartisan child advocacy group, First Focus, one third of all unemployed people are parents.

We got to town hours ahead of time. We were supposed to meet folks at an abandoned private education building which had been offered to area homeless advocates for use as a shelter. So we dropped in at the local newspaper to see if anyone there knew much about the homeless scene.

Calhoun Times beat reporter, Sarah Jones said, "All of Gordon County has been hit hard." She explained how carpet manufacturing and fabric dyeing had been major industries, but business had all but disappeared. She explained the lack of alternatives, "We hardly have any restaurants for anyone to get a job at, all the jobs were manufacturing."

This past November, Jones wrote an eight part series on homelessness in the area. She told us that hers were the first stories anyone had published and that folks, "didn't believe there was a problem like that around here." Jones identified teens, adults and families with children living in subhuman conditions. She told us that she'd asked local officials to comment on the situation but none would. And even after the paper published her stories, not one of them called her -- not the Mayor of Calhoun, the City Councilors, the Gordon County Administrator, or the County Commissioners.

Jones said that in addition to the folks she met, she'd heard of an encampment behind a grocery store. That's pretty usual; folks hide behind markets because the dumpsters are full of food. Jones hadn't gone back there because she didn't want to go into the woods alone.

I said, "You aren't alone." Together, we took off for the camp.